4 March, 2016

Move over for Fairtrade Africa

by Eileen Maybin, the Fairtrade Foundation

Eileen Maybin, Senior Media Adviser – Special Initiatives at the Fairtrade Foundation, reports from the Africa Fairtrade Convention.   


Traffic congestion in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, must be among the worst in the world.  Arriving in the city 20 years after I last visited, the long traffic jams made quite an impression.  Locals get up before dawn to avoid it – if they don’t, they have to sit for up to three-hours in the morning ‘rush’ hour.

The image of people going nowhere seemed a stark contrast to the bustle of activity when I arrived at the three-day Africa Fairtrade Convention (AFC), hosted by Fairtrade Africa – the biggest ever meeting of ethical and sustainably certified organisations in Africa. Unlike the Nairobi rush-hour traffic, Fairtrade Africa and its members are driving forward energetically in many directions, if hitting the occasional bump in the road.

Driving change in Africa

Opening the bi-annual conference, the Executive Director of Fairtrade Africa, Nyagoy Nyong’o, reminded participants that, as recently as 2000, there were just ten Fairtrade producer organisations in Africa.  Today, Fairtrade Africa is a network of more than 440 producer groups in 32 countries across Africa and the Middle East, representing a million farmers and workers.

The driving image continued when Nyagoy said: “Fairtrade Africa is committed to driving change for smallholder producers and workers in Africa.  We aim to support our members to strengthen their organisations in line with Fairtrade standards, to improve our members’ ability to access Fairtrade markets and to advocate in their interests. People, Planet and Profit are the three Ps around which we want to improve producers’ lives.”
Most countries in the Fairtrade Africa network were represented at the AFC, whose 450 delegates included farmers and workers and traders, and policy makers, National Fairtrade Organisations from Europe and beyond, and funders including the UK Department for International Development.

The conference, “Fairtrade as a Partner for Sustainable Development’, explored how Fairtrade was working to empower for farmers and workers through trade, focussing in particular on the Global Goals for Sustainable Development signed by UN countries in September last year. Of the 17 Global Goals outlined by the UN, Fairtrade focuses on eight where our efforts can make a specific contribution: food security, on gender equality, on sustainable economic growth, on reducing inequality within and between countries, on sustainable consumption and production, on climate change, on promoting peaceful societies for sustainable development, and on implementing global partnerships for sustainable development.

Empowering farmers

Panel discussion and workshops took place on these crucial goals as the Fairtrade system prepares strategies to ensure that the voices of smallholder farmers and workers are heard at the highest levels of government and commerce discussion on the goals.  Fairtrade is also determined to showcase how the Fairtrade system supports progress on these goals and so should be seen by politicians and business as a strong partner to deliver on the economic, environmental and social criteria underpinning sustainability.

The keynote speaker Mr Alessandro Tonoli, Trade Adviser to the European Union Delegation, talked about how trade could be a powerful tool to help reduce poverty and improve the livelihoods of people in very different sectors.  But he said the conditions had to be right for people to benefit from trade. 

“For trade to be good for growth, there needs to be the right tools, the right knowledge and the right partnerships.  Fairness is an essential element of what we are trying to achieve… We need the conditions or the potential of trade will not be fulfilled.”  He complimented Fairtrade and other schemes for having the conditions of fairness in place, commenting that Fairtrade was an obvious partner to help deliver on the Global Goals for Sustainable Development. 

“Fairtrade offers producers the best of experience of how trade can be used to foster growth and allow the type of growth that is sustainable as it is inclusive,” he said. 

Africa's gonna get noticed

For me, the sub-text of the conference articulated by Esther Ngina when she recounted her own experience: “Fairtrade is a culture,” she said.  Esther started out picking and packing flowers on Oserian flower farm in Kenya but, because the Fairtrade premium committee granted her a bursary, she was able to continue her education and progressed to a job in the accounts department. Today Esther exports herbs and spices as the manager of Taste Kenya Exporters where she tries to embue her company with fair trade principles. 

Just the next day, I met a young woman called Grace. She too had started out in gumboots picking roses for a flower farm. She too had been determined and, with the help of a bursary from the Fairtrade premium committee, had continued her education so that she is now working in the Finance Department and is continuing her education. Her eyes lit up as she enthused about the opportunity Fairtrade provides. “I am from a humble background so I would never have been able to get on without Fairtrade”, she said.

Charles Chavi of Kasinthula Sugar Cane Growers’ Association expressed it slightly differently: “I encourage everyone to remain committed to Fairtrade just like we are in Malawi.  We take Fairtrade as a business of course, but also as a way of life.”
The domino effect of Fairtrade in Africa was clearly evident as small producers and workers talked about the direct and indirect benefits of Fairtrade.  As delegates gave their final comments on the conference, one summed up how the culture of Fairtrade could be transformative – she said “If we support each other, Africa’s gonna get noticed.”

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